I hadn’t expected rush hour Tokyo to be relaxing; especially after my first experience of Japan.
I’d stepped off the airport train at Shinjuku in a sleep-deprived fug to be confronted by what seemed like all of the station’s two million daily users dashing full speed ahead toward its myriad exits. I stood transfixed, trying to make sense of what I was witnessing. Eventually, I was rescued by a kindly old man who appeared by my side. He asked, in broken English, where I wanted to go. “Towards Government Office” I blurted, upon which he gently escorted me through the labyrinthine walkways to the right exit, bowed slightly then left in the direction we had come.
I was so tired I wasn’t sure what had just happened. But as I emerged above ground silently thanking my guardian angel I decided to experience a Tokyo rush hour when fully awake.
And so it was I found myself very early one morning leaning nonchalantly against a column on a cold, grey platform in the depths of Akihabara station wondering where all the commuters were.
The answer came some minutes later. At first I couldn’t quite believe what I was seeing; I know the Japanese are a slender race but surely it wasn’t possible to cram so many people into a train.
The rush of commuters off the train was like a dam bursting as they ran past me towards the exits. Train after train arrived with metronomic regularity disgorging wave upon wave of people surging inexorably forward. Despite the numbers of people heading off the platform I was surprised to see no bottlenecks, no queue jumping, no pushing nor shoving.
So, I decided it was time to get involved: it was time to surf the human wave. I headed towards the exit in front of the next set of onrushing commuters but was swallowed up before I hit my stride. If you’ve been white water rafting you’ll understand what I felt as I plunged down into the bowels of the station: the adrenaline rush as I joined the inescapable throng and the enhanced perceptions that extreme situations give. It was great fun, constantly being alert to subtle changes of direction and speed, all of us moving, as one, around oncoming obstacles like shoals of fish avoiding a shark’s gapping jaw.
At the main concourse I peeled off to find a quiet eddy by a small kiosk where I stood laughing in a post thrill-seeking endorphin high.
And that’s when it happened.
As I stood watching, mesmerised by the flow, time slowed. Seemly random movements suddenly looked choreographed and smooth; crowds merged and blurred; colours muted. It’s difficult to describe other than I had an overwhelming sense of tranquillity despite thousands of people speeding past. I felt completely relaxed. I didn’t realise it at the time but in this Zen like trance I had achieved mindfulness, a traditional Buddhist meditative practice which is currently enjoying popularity in the west.
After sometime, I don’t know how long, I became aware the tide of commuters was subsiding so I floated out of the station to enjoy another day in a great city.
To give you some perspective, an estimated 20 million people travel by rail every day in Tokyo’s metropolitan area, compared to 10 million a day in the whole of Germany.